Holiday Two

Nov 8, 2011 by

When The Beatles catalog was released on CD in 1988, it was a big fucking deal.  People were all too anxious to trade their dog-eared vinyl copies of The White Album for digital perfection.  No longer did they have to cope with the skip in “Martha My Dear,” or the loud pop in “Rocky Raccoon.”  At the time, I was a kid without a cd player, and yet I remember this event well.

In spite of the pronouncement, 20 years ago, that analog is dead and digital is the future, it comes as little surprise that there has been a vinyl revivalist movement.  Kids love vinyl for everything that a collection of mp3’s is not:  the warm sound, large artwork, more personal experience and easy digestion of 20 minutes of music at a time.[1]  Personally, I mostly stick with cd’s for their durability and superior sound to mp3’s, but about a quarter of the music I buy is on vinyl.  What’s so fascinating to me is that we have arrived at the opposite of 1988: albums only ever released on cd are making their way to vinyl for the first time.

Such is the case with Holiday by The Magnetic Fields.  My first listen to this album in 1994 was one of my Space Shuttle Challenger musical moments[2]: the album so blew my mind on the first listen that it left an indelible memory of exactly where I was the first time I heard it.  The Magnetic Fields are more or less Stephin Merritt:  he writes all the songs, sings most of the vocals and plays several instruments.  Holiday was his third album and first on which he sang the vocals.

While his low, moody voice stamps a distinctive mark on his work, it is the amazing collection of sounds that so endears this album to me.   Regularly nestled between the sugary hooks, synthesizers and drum machines are the sounds of, well, I honestly don’t know what a lot of these sounds are.  Toys might be the best description of the instruments possibly used, but that seems belittling to how much they add to the music.  Could this album; awash in intricate buzzes, chirps, creaks and static create anywhere near as memorable an experience on the first vinyl listen?

I have successfully avoided being that sucker who buys remastered, rereleased, and bonus-tracked albums that I own in their older forms.  I see it as a waste of money I could spend discovering new music, and the David Bowie production of The Stooges’ Raw Power notwithstanding, usually the original recording sounds just fine.  I had to make an exception for one of my favorite albums being released in a new format, and Merge Records did this one right.  It’s remastered, stamped on 180 gram vinyl, and is not diluted with filler bonus tracks.  The enigmatic retro painting cover art has never looked better, as its been upgraded from the seeming postage stamp on the cd to a billboard on the wax.  A young man and woman happily gaze at each other with loving affection on some sort of maritime vessel while the ship’s captain approvingly looks on.  And yet, like the album’s music itself, the cover has a quirk: amidst 1950’s bliss, the woman is comfortably holding a rifle and smiling beautifully.  Adorning the cellophane covering the record sleeve is a sticker with a Robert Christgau quote about the album: “More songs about songs and songs.”  It’s a fitting quote, as Christgau simultaneously associates Holiday with another influential album (The Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food) and references how voluminous Stephin Merritt’s song output was from 1993 to 1999.[3]

Pulling the record out of the sleeve, the substantial 180 gram weight immediately gives the album gravitas.  The average 12 inch vinyl lp is 140 grams and the extra 40 grams reminds me of the first time I drove a new car.  Tighter, stronger, and more in control, it just doesn’t buckle or bend.  I put the record on the player, sit in the triangulated sweet spot 15 feet from the center of my two speakers, and begin to listen to a modern classic with new ears.  The bubbling and bouncing electronic beat of the introductory instrumental “BBC Radiophonic Workshop”[4] fills the room and sounds as amazing as ever.  Track four, “Torn Green Velvet Eyes.”  With its liquid vocals and repeated intercessions of accelerating static remains one of the most beautiful experimental pop songs ever made.  It loses none of its magic on vinyl.  After the triumphant swirling organs of the seventh track, “Swinging London,” the stereo falls silent halfway through and I need to flip the record.  Side two spins much like one, with a warmer sound that buries some of the intricacies, but all the same still a gorgeous experience.

Holiday was remastered by Jeff Lipton at Peerless Mastering, although it’s not without reason that his work is not mentioned anywhere on the inner or outer sleeve.  Unlike most mastering jobs that dial up the volume and max out the low end, Lipton’s touches are quite subtle.  In the end, that’s basically what my $17 got me: some minor audio differences and larger artwork for some tunes whose grooves are already well worn in my head.  But given the amount of crap music released, it would have been far too easy to have spent my money on something that wouldn’t have rewarded me with a fresh listen to one of the best albums released in the past twenty years.

Posted by Special Contributor Wes Money


[1] For a minority, their dislike of digital music oddly strays towards an affinity for the murky hiss of cassette tapes

[2] Others call these their 9/11 and JFK-assassination musical moments

[3] I just now made an iTunes playlist with all of the songs penned by Stephin Merritt during those years, and came up with a staggering 149 songs.  Granted, that number includes all the monikers he recorded under (The Magnetic Fields, The Sixths, The Gothic Archies, and The Future Bible Heroes), but still, I think Merge label mate FM Cornog of East River Pipe said it best about Merritt: “He makes Elton John look lazy!”]

[4] Incidentally, I never knew the name of this song when I first purchased the cd.  Inexplicably it was nameless on the original pressing of the cd sleeve on Feel Good All Over Records, and later acquired its name when Merge rereleased the cd a decade ago.]

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